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CBS Rescinds Suspension of Andy Rooney : Television: ’60 Minutes’ commentator will return to the air Sunday and may speak about the controversy over remarks attributed to him.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three weeks after being slapped with a three-month suspension over remarks attributed to him about blacks and gays, “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney was reinstated Thursday. He will be back on the air Sunday.

“Andy Rooney and I have discussed at length the events that led to his suspension as well as the debate that has ensued over the past month,” CBS News President David Burke said in a statement announcing his decision to rescind his earlier discipline against the 70-year-old newsman.

Noting that Rooney had stated publicly that “he is not a man who holds prejudice in his heart,” Burke said that “it is time Andy returned to his proper place on ’60 Minutes.’ ”

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While Rooney could not be reached for comment, he was expected to address the controversy in his commentary Sunday night. Don Hewitt, executive producer of “60 Minutes,” had said earlier this week that “when he does come back, he will, of course, give an explanation of how he got into this bind.”

Reaction to Rooney’s reinstatement was generally positive, even from several groups that initially had criticized him. But some CBS hands objected to Burke’s handling of the matter.

Burke’s Feb. 8 suspension of Rooney had generated thousands of letters of support for the CBS commentator, and ratings for “60 Minutes” had dropped. Last Sunday it was beaten in its time period by an entertainment program for only the second time in the last 12 years.

In addition, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, former CBS News President Richard A. Salant and others declared that the suspension of Rooney impinged upon the rights of commentators to state their views.

Burke alluded to that issue in his statement Thursday, saying that he was concerned about the balance between “the needs of a news organization to maintain its reputation for fairness and objectivity” with “the ability to speak without undue constraint.” That balance, he said, “has been achieved.”

Rooney has denied making a racial remark about blacks “watering down their genes” that was attributed to him in an interview in The Advocate, a Los Angeles-based gay magazine. He did acknowledge writing a letter published by the magazine in which he said that he did not consider homosexuality to be normal.

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At the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which earlier had praised CBS’ suspension of Rooney, assistant director Karin Schwartz said Thursday that the organization did not object to his early return.

“We have made peace with CBS,” Schwartz said in an interview, “but we think Burke should make a statement that clarifies what CBS News executives have said to us privately, which is that their sensitivity to homophobia has been increased. Andy Rooney has yet to address his own homophobia. We’re looking forward to seeing what he says on Sunday night.”

She said that she met recently with Burke and other CBS News executives and that CBS News had agreed to distribute the organization’s media guide and to invite its officials to meet with executive producers of CBS news programs to discuss the treatment of gays in the news.

Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, initially applauded the suspension of Rooney, although he called for a more thorough investigation. But he had said last week that he had been satisfied that the commentator was not a bigot and would not have a problem with his early return to “60 Minutes.”

Former CBS News president Salant applauded Burke’s decision Thursday, saying, “One of the toughest things anybody can do is back off. It is to Burke’s credit that he reconsidered.”

But others at CBS, while supporting Rooney’s return, criticized Burke’s handling of the matter, maintaining that the CBS News president has not made clear his reasons for the suspension or the reinstatement.

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“It’s not satisfying,” said one CBS employee who requested anonymity. “Burke seems to be trying to portray himself as Solomon-like and above the fray. But now he’s made two uncommunicative statements. We never explained what the beef against Rooney was, and now we have a second uncommunicative statement about what’s happened that he is coming back.”

When Burke suspended Rooney, he did not indicate whether Rooney was being suspended for his alleged racial remarks or for the letter about gays, or both.

In his statement Thursday, Burke said, “While I have not spoken publicly on the matter, I have listened to the opinions and comments of various gay and lesbian organizations, the NAACP, as well as many individuals whose judgments I also respect.” He said that “we have all learned a great deal” about “how deeply people and groups can be hurt if great care is not taken in public discourse.”

According to CBS sources, Burke has been criticized by other executives at CBS for his handling of the controversy. The pressure on Burke was said to have increased this week after “60 Minutes” was beaten in the ratings by a repeat of the special that launched “America’s Funniest Home Videos” on ABC. Hewitt attributed the ratings drop in part to the controversy surrounding on Rooney’s absence.

“There is a feeling that Burke should have at least stalled for time when the controversy broke,” said the CBS employee, “allowing all sides to speak. Rooney’s remarks about gays may have been stupid, but he did not get his day in court.”

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